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Best Day entry: Traveling through rugged and awesome Northwest Passage

By on December 22, 2019 in Uncategorized with 0 Comments
Gretchen Barkmann got to see — and photograph — polar bears in their native icy environment on her Northwest Passage.

By Gretchen Barkmann

It wasn’t just one day, it was a series of days.

It was a bucket list trip as I’ve always been intrigued by the fabled Northwest Passage. 

Maybe it is because I’m a person who thrives in cold climates, or maybe because I’ve always loved adventure, heading into the unknown. Maybe it’s because of the stories of brave explorers in the 19th Century heading out in wooden ships to discover a shortcut from Europe to Asia across the top of the world. 

Probably the most well-known of those expeditions was that of Sir John Franklin who set out in 1845 with two ships: the Terror and Erebus, and 129 men. They overwintered in the heart of the Northwest Passage but after a second winter both ships and crew disappeared. Finally in 2014 and 2017, the ships were discovered on the arctic sea floor and are now designated as a Canadian National Historic Site. 

Aug. 28, 2019 was my embarkation day: a flight to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland to board a small (144 passengers plus crew plus expedition staff), spunky, and incredibly comfortable cruise ship. 

Our route was north along the west edge of Greenland, then west across Baffin Bay and west-southwest through the Northwest Passage, eventually south through the Bering Strait to Nome, Alaska. 

The ship had a fleet of zodiacs — inflatable skiffs that launched us to all sorts of wonderful experiences. 

In zodiacs, we cruised through massive icebergs calved from Greenland’s ice cap; we landed at several remote Inuit villages in Greenland and Nunavut, Canada; we landed at historic or interesting locations including Fort Ross, an old Hudson’s Bay post; Jenny Lind Island, a bird sanctuary; Dundas Harbor, an old Royal Canadian Mounted Police post, and Beechy Island where three of Franklin’s crew are buried. 

The landscape is stark — there are no trees up there. To see vegetation one has to look down. All tundra vegetation, including arctic willow, grass, moss, lichen, flowers, mushrooms, is less than four inches in height. 

Our wildlife count included a white wolf, musk ox, weasels, massive Bowhead whales, Narwal, Belugas, Humpbacks, walrus, several seal species, lots of birds, and of course polar bears — on the ice pack and on land. We sailed right into the ice in search of polar bears. 

We spent an afternoon in zodiacs cruising along the Smoking Hills in Franklin Bay in the Northwest Territories, Canada. This remarkable place looks like a series of small volcanoes but is actually a rare occurrence of sulfide-rich oil shale spontaneously igniting to create eerie smoking hillsides.


I came away with a deep appreciation of the arctic: its landscape, its wildlife and mostly its people — the warm and wonderful Inuit who welcomed us to their communities and shared their culture and art with us, and something else that I can’t describe — an uplifting mystique.

The allure remains with me and after only a couple months being home, I am ready to return: the high arctic remains on my to-do travel list.

Gretchen Barkmann is a retired Forest Service Engineer born and raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who worked with the Forest Service in New Mexico and Alaska before moving with the Forest Service to Wenatchee which she now calls home.

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